Meta-prisons, or, Imprisonizing introspections upon investigations of incarceration

Our latest guest blog comes from Charlie, a first-year PhD researcher in the Architecture By Design program at the University of Edinburgh.  His research is on the architecture of prisons, and perhaps someday he will design you a new home.

I’m a doctoral researcher studying the architecture of prisons with the goal of developing improved prison designs in which the architecture may impose a direct, constructive influence upon the morality and behavior of the resident prisoners.  It sounds grim, I know.  But it reminds me of a line from a comedian who said something like, “I used to be against the death penalty, until I realized that I get to give it out.”  In other words, my research is all fine and dandy until I slip up and find myself on the other side of the wall.

In pursuing my investigations into the psychology and experience of prisoners, I am increasingly unnerved by the ways in which our experiences mirror one another’s.  I begin to wonder if I am researching the “other” or rather merely peering deep into myself.  I’m sure psychologists have a term for this phenomenon, but can I even trust their terminologies if I might in fact be on the other side of the razor-wire fence from them?

I’m struck by the extraordinarily regimented nature of the prisoner’s life, in which each day is defined by a simple alternation between obedience, labor, and the service of necessity.  As I speculate upon such a monotonous, quotidian existence shaped by mindless obligation, it strikes me, like a rusty shank, that my research regimen is not so different.  Read, write, read, write day in and day out; are the walls of expectation which surround me really so different from the disciplinarian restrictions which constrain my research-subjects?

Charlie - sgsah_blogpost_image

Image of FCC Florence assembled by author from map data ©2019 Google, accessed from,-105.0963344,1832m/data=!3m1!1e3 on 11 February 2019.

One thing which is painfully apparent to any researcher of the existence of contemporary prisoners is that these people’s lives lie in the hands of someone else.  Parole?  Protective custody?   …hmm, how much have you kowtowed the relevant figures of authority?  I used to think, “those poor prisoners, at the mercy of a cold-hearted parole board!”  And then I got to thinking about supervisors and viva examiners… Is my future independence not equally contingent upon the judgement of a haughty and alien committee of free and empowered personas?

As I read about the experience of prisoners, I am often struck by their fears of their future release.  Despite all the terrors of contemporary incarceration, a great many prisoners look toward their impending freedom with trepidation, anxious about how they will integrate into the non-prison society and—most of all—how they will find gainful employment.  Um… am I looking in a mirror?!  With each passing day, I increasingly worry about my prospects of cashing in on this supposed educational “investment” such that I might establish an independent and socially-integrated existence for myself.  Maybe the prison has become home, and anywhere else is exile…

Such fears may sound absurd; how could some ninny with a gazillion dollars of fancy degrees dare to perceive his future as any kind of prison??  But such a question brings to mind some lyrics of the great sage Bob Dylan; from his “Ballad in Plain D”:

Ah, my friends from the prison they ask unto me,
How good, how good does it feel to be free,
And I answer them most mysteriously,
Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog, please get in touch with Lizzie via email at or connect with the blog on Twitter

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